Through the dark, murky water, a predator glides effortlessly; camoflauged by a blanket of lilly pads, it is stealth and quietly dangerous. The massive beast submerges deep down udner the green surface, eventually finding its way to the rocky bottom.
Alligators are Florida’s most loved and feared reptile. With their bone crushing jaws and lightning quick reflexes, these swamp monsters can be found in virtually every body of fresh water in the state. And when it comes to catching and handling these savage creatures, no one does it better than Paul Bedard.
Bedard is South Florida’s version of Crocodile Dundee. Skilled, strong and fearless, this gator trapper is one of the stars of television’s most popular reality series, Gator Boys. On each episode, Bedard gets up close and personal with alligators. The well-loved Gator Boys, which airs on Animal Planet every Sunday at 9 p.m., debuted a year ago and features Bedard and his crew rescuing and wrangling gators at Everglades Holiday Park.
Bedard and his partner, Jimmy Riffle, regularly get called out to various locations throughout Broward County (South Florida) to capture nuisance gators and sometimes snakes. While the men work together as a team, Bedard typically is the one who jumps into the water in order to locate the problem gator. Once caught barehanded or with just a rope, Bedard will pull the large beast onto dry ground where Riffle takes over. After the gator is subdued and its jaws are taped, Bedard and Riffle will load the gator into their truck and bring it back to Holdiay Park headquarters.
The Gator Boys crew strongly believes in saving the lives of gators caught; simply removing and relocating the nuisance gator to the park is a humane solution.
Prior to volunteering at Everglades Holiday Park, Bedard wrestled gators at the nearby Native Village, located in Hollywood, Florida. In addition to the village, the Gator Boys star also did work at Jungle Island and the Jungle Queen, two other South Florida based attractions.
For twenty years now, Bedard has been wrestling and catching alligators; however, the reptilian predators were not exactly the trapper’s first true love. “I actually started in the Keys working with sharks,” states Bedard. “My friends were doing some work tagging sharks and we started hand catching six to nine foot sharks to tag them and release them. If I didn’t get so deathly sea sick, I’d probably be working with sharks today. My friend Manny got me into the whole gator thing. He’d witness the puking in the boat for eight hours and decided I might be better suited for gators.”
In addition to gators, Bedard catches snakes. “I caught my first rattlesnake when I was twelve-years-old in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Unfortunately though for Bedard, a snake was what caused him his worst injury to date. “I had gotten a Western Diamondback bite and spent five days in the hospital. I have a finger that doesn’t straighten out or has a full range of motion or much feeling. But, that’s not too bad. I have a lot of friends that have lost fingers to gators and snakes.”
And speaking of aggressive gators, Bedard recalls one of the state’s most recent attacks on a human. This past July, a Moore Haven teenager was swimming in the Caloosachatchee River when he had a very close encounter with a large alligator. The boy put up his arm, as a sacrifice of sorts, for the gator in hopes of getting out of the water alive. The gator took part of the teen’s arm, but spared the rest of him. When asked about the attack later, the Florida resident said he learned about this life-saving strategy from watching the series, Gator Boys. So, did the teen ultimately do the right thing? According to Bedard, he did what he could. “I think if he had popped the gator in the nose with a good punch the second time the gator came back, that may have helped him. You’re in the water with a ten foot gator that wants to eat you, you have no experience handling gators, and you only lose a hand? I’d say he made out well; I’m glad he learned something from our show,” states the expert trapper.
There is no doubt that swimming with alligators is a significant threat, but do the beasts just attack even if unprovoked? “If you are in the water and the gator is on the surface with you, all he sees is your head and that’s about the same size as a duck; looks like a pretty good sized meal. Also, gators that are fed see people as a food source so if you walk down to the dock to go for a swim, all the gator sees is a two-legged animal walking down and a splash. If that usually means someone is throwing food in the water, he probably doesn’t think any different when you jump in. I never worry about a gator I see. It’s the ones I don’t see that I’m concerned with,” explains Bedard.
The gator catcher is surprisingly cool and collected when swimming alongside alligators. “I don’t really get frightened about that stuff. Believe it or not, some people including myself, actually believe that I know what I’m doing,” Bedard says jokingly. “But seriously, getting frightened isn’t going to help you.” It’s hard for me to imagine not getting frightened while in the water with these predators. After all, one of the biggest gators Bedard once caught was 13 feet, 5 inches long!
For Bedard, the most challenging aspect of the gator capture is getting close enough to grab or put the rope over the gator. In addition, just finding the gator can be a difficult and sometimes daunting task especially if the job takes place at night when waters are dark. Bedard further states that he will get calls for catching gators that are miles away and so by the time he arrives on site, the nuisance gator is a hard find. “Sometimes I spend a lot of time looking for nothing,” explains the Gator Boy. “I have caught some gators in five minutes, and others I chased for weeks and never caught.” According to Bedard, not being able to locate a gator happens quite often. “If a gator swims down a five mile long canal, and ten people see it, they can all call the gator hotline and the state could issue ten permits for the same gator, and it’s long gone.”
It seems as though Florida has more gators than just about anywhere in the country. Gator eyes pop up just over the water’s surface in most ponds and rivers throughout the state. So, with that said, does “The Sunshine State” have the biggest alligator population in the nation? “I believe Louisiana has the most gators in the U.S., but we have a lot more nuisance gators and a lot more attacks mainly because almost every house in southern Florida is on or close to a canal or other body of water,” Bedard responds.
Bedard and his Gator Boys team at Everglades Holiday Park are experts when it comes to trapping these nuisance gators and are far different than other Florida trappers. First off, the crew at the park are all volunteers, so they do what they do out of love for saving the gators. “I lifeguard in Massachusetts (Bedard’s birthplace)during the summer, and we do a lot of work with tv shows and movies providing alligators and other animals,” explains the gator rescuer on how he earns money. “But with the Gator Boys, we have no paid positions.” Another way Gator Boys stands out from the rest is simply because after they catch an alligator, they relocate it to a sanctuary (ie. Everglades Holiday Park), rather than selling it for its meat and skin. Most trappers will kill nuisance gators, but for the crew at Gator Boys, this is not an option.
And though Bedard believes in saving gators’ lives, he doesn’t blame his fellow catchers for not rescuing. “I don’t really judge other trappers for killing gators; many of them are great people and would rather not kill them. But, if they don’t sell the gators for their meat or hide, they don’t get paid. Not everyone is willing to live in a tent and work for free, like me. And, all trappers save human lives by removing these nuisance gators from public places. Of course, I wish that they wouldn’t kill any gators and that’s why I started Gator Boys Alligator Rescue. I can’t change the whole system, so I’ve just tried to work within it and save as many gators as I can. I’ve never killed a gator and never will. Florida state says that any nuisance gator over four feet must be kept in captivity, which is where all our nuisance gators go, or are destroyed,” explains Bedard.
Bedard started at Everglades Holiday Park seven years ago, but found his gator catching partner, Jimmy Riffle, long before. “I met Jimmy when he was a kid, wrestling gators at Native Village,” recalls Bedard. “I had helped some trappers catch gators in the past, but the village is where I started the actual showmanship side of wrestling. Scott and Tre (other members of the Gator Boys crew) I knew from the Village as well. I met Chris and Mike (additional crew members) while working at Jungle Island. When I started trapping gators, I needed someone to do the shows at the park, for free, and the guys all helped out. When we started the tv show, I brought Jimmy into the park as well.”
In addition to no paid positions and a no kill policy, The Gator Boys never charge for their catches. Bedard explains that “no kill means no pay.” Typically when a trapper catches a gator, he will get paid by selling its meat and hide. For Bedard, Riffle and the rest of the crew at Everglades Holiday Park, the only money they see is from their tip baskets at the gator shows, which according to Bedard, is usually just a few dollars. The wrestlers and handlers also get tips when they perform at various road shows across the state and country, and for the alligators they may provide for movie and television production purposes.
The Gator Boys Alligator Rescue got its start not long after Bedard began wrestling gators at Everglades Holiday Park. “I used to do almost all the shows there, fifteen a day for five to six days a week in order to raise a few dollars a day in tips to go buy an alligator from a trapper,” explains Bedard. “That’s how the rescue started. Then, one of the trappers came to me and said, ‘If you really want to save some gators, why don’t you trap for me; every one you catch, you can keep.’”
Bedard and his crew are greatly respected for what they do and many who come to see them wrestle the alligators at the park, are profoundly impressed. It was no wonder a television series was created. Since the Gator Boys debuted, it has received much praise from critics and audiences everywhere. For Bedard, he’s not surprised the show is as popular as it is. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was going to work,” explains the gator guru. “I don’t like to fail at anything.”
According to Bedard, the show has not affected Everglades Holiday Park much. Though the handler hasn’t seen too many drastic changes since Gator Boys first aired, he does feel it has made his triathlon training (a favorite pastime outside of gator catching) difficult. “Last year was the first year in a long time that I did not race. This year I’m hoping to do a few late races and then race at least ten races next year.” Bedard began taking part in triathlons pretty seriously after college, following the nice weather as he raced. “I had friends in North Florida and in the Keys. I would spend a few months every year couch surfing at someone’s house so I could train in the good weather. I lived in a tent for six months one year!”
Aside from finding the time to train for these races, Bedard is very excited about the show and loves being able to use it to teach others about alligators. Since the series keeps the Gator Boys crew extremely busy and production is time-consuming, they are unable to go out to individual schools to teach lessons about the reptiles. Bedard explains, “The good part about the show is it can educate a lot more people, including children, all over the world and not just one classroom at a time. It’s great!”
At first, Bedard admits that catching gators in front of the cameras was not easy. “It was hard because the production crew would make too much noise or ask questions in the middle of a catch, but they are getting a lot better at it now.”
While filming, Bedard and Riffle have found themselves in some pretty scary situations, as well as some that have been perhaps a little strange. “Some of my most memorable calls are the ones that take me to gators in swimming pools; those are just fun because I know the gator’s not going anywhere and the water is perfectly clear, unlike any other catch. So, I just go in and play around with the gator until it’s tired enough for me to pick it up and carry it out.”
For those who have seen Gator Boys, you know well that Bedard likes to hug and even kiss the gators he catches; loving gestures many of us would instead reserve for cute little puppies and kitties. “I’m just trying to put out positive energy,” Bedard explains.
As for Bedard’s most humorous experience while on set, he remembers it well. “I was helping out a triple amputee marine that wanted to touch this eleven foot gator on the nose, and when I looked over, a woman had walked in the middle of what we were doing and the look on her face was priceless. I’m sure she thought I was feeding this guy to an alligator!”
And, personally for me, when watching the show I often wonder where Bedard scored such an amazing necklace. The necklace Bedard wears on each of his episodes does have a story behind it. “I had a necklace of five smaller teeth, and when my nephew died in a spear fishing accident, I buried it with him. Two days later, I found these teeth in the swamp so I always say it’s a gift from my nephew. I’ve never found teeth that big before or since,” reflects Bedard.
Bedard and his amazing crew have definitely shown audiences all around the world what it’s like to be a gator wrestler and catcher. Watching Gator Boys, we are able to get closer than ever to the deadly beasts that roam South Florida swamps and swim in the murky waterways. Bedard has, indeed, shown us much with the show, and we can certainly hope for plenty more episodes.
As for Florida’s most famous gator trapper, what’s next on his list? “I’m happy where I am. I just want to keep it going and try to be a better person everyday.” Pair that kind of positivity with a couple gator smooches, and rest assured, we will be watching Bedard and his Gator Boys for many more wonderful seasons to come. Sounds like good karma to me!